Conversation with Oglála Lakȟóta Elder Basil Brave Heart: Part 2
By Hilary Giovale
Oglála Lakȟóta Elder Basil Brave Heart often has a twinkle in his eye and a funny story to share. A Catholic boarding school Survivor, Korean War combat veteran, author, retired school administrator and addiction counselor, Basil lives in a cozy trailer tucked into rolling hills on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a place with a 53.75% unemployment rate and the lowest life expectancy in the United States. Also known as Prisoner of War Camp #334, Pine Ridge was established in 1899 when the United States Government forced Basil’s ancestors onto reservations.
I am a ninth generation European-descended settler living next to a sacred mountain of kinship on Diné, Hopi and Havasupai land. As a mother, dancer, philanthropist and writer, I’m dedicated to a process of decolonization and reparations that has been guided in part by Indigenous mentors and friends.
During the summer of 2018, my young son and I were invited to spend a few days amidst the fragrant sunflowers, sage, and pine trees on Basil’s land. At his suggestion, we visited the Wounded Knee Memorial to honor the Lakȟóta ancestors who were massacred there on December 29, 1890. Basil related: beginning in 1938 and continuing throughout his childhood, his Grandma Lucy taught him to extend unconditional love and forgiveness to the wašíču (fat taker) soldiers and settlers who disrupted and disparaged his ancestors’ lifeways so painfully. Grappling with the unsettling reality of my own ancestors’ colonialism, Basil’s stories sparked my curiosity – who was this man?
Over time our friendship deepened to bridge tremendous divides – of culture, generation, gender, class; of the oppressor and the oppressed. In the summer of 2019, we worked together on an international Ceremony for Repentance and Forgiveness, which brought together people whose ancestors were impacted by both sides of wars, genocide, enslavement, and other human rights abuses throughout the world.
As an octogenarian and beloved Elder, Basil’s rich life experiences offer illumination. For forty years, he has been teaching about the current paradigm shift to restore the sacred natural order of the universe. Part One of this interview shares Basil’s reflections about Lakȟóta lifeways and the impacts of boarding schools. Part Two covers his perspectives on war, healing, and patriotism.
Basil: What I experienced as a combat veteran in the Korean War goes to the wounded healer principle.
Hilary: Please tell us about it.
Basil: For years, I was held hostage by the hideousness of war. Because I felt guilt and shame, I didn’t want to talk about it. I was afraid to be seen as someone who was deranged and participated in something hideous, and I was afraid of triggering the flashbacks.
Now, I want to talk about some things that happened 69 years ago, things that rearranged my whole being – my mind, my heart, my soul, and my physical self. It was like putting an egg in a skillet and scrambling it. It started as a perfect yellow center bright as the sun, with whiteness all around it. Then it was sculptured to become something different.
During the Korean War, I was stationed in Beppu, Japan, which was a station for special operations. It was a weekend and we were downtown drinking, ready to have a real good time. But all of a sudden, some military police came into the bar and said, “Back to camp.” And we knew that if we didn’t follow orders, we could face severe consequences. One guy took a fifth of whiskey and we headed back.
In camp, they were issuing real ammo, real grenades, and C-rations, which could last us three of four days. We packed up all of our clothes and put them in foot lockers, took our beds down, and stacked the mattresses. And it grabbed me: something was about to happen and I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into. I had just turned 18.
While we were loading the truck, there was a brief moment where the mailman said we’d received some mail. I opened a letter from home and learned that my Grandma Lucy, who taught me so much as a child, had died. I had to numb that right away. I put it on the back burner so it wouldn’t become part of what we were about to do.
We went to the airport and they issued our parachutes. General Westmoreland came in a Jeep, and he issued us silk camouflage parachute scarves. Then we knew that we were going to be jumping into enemy territory. We were trained to be paratroopers, and we were also trained to be killing machines.
We loaded the planes. There must have been 150 or 200 planes. It was a whole regiment, with probably 100,000 paratroopers. We were in props – two propellers on each side – with a total of 32 paratroopers in each plane, fully loaded with ammo and grenades. They started the props, and the plane started to shake. My adrenaline kicked in so strongly that it altered my mind.
They told us that we were going to be flying over the Sea of Japan and that there would be a storm. We had a device called a Mae West, so in case we hit the water, we wouldn’t drown. Then they said we’d be flying over shark-infested waters, and there would be junks below, which were small enemy boats disguised as fishing boats. The junks had rocket launchers inside and they could take us down at any time. We took off, and out the window I could see a number of planes taking off on either side of us, and an amazing amount of planes going airborne behind us.
The plane started to shake up and down. I thought, “Well, if this plane goes down, I could drown or be eaten by a shark.” I experienced a fear that took me to the wall. I was trapped. There were no prayers, there was no refuge. There is a psychological center that helps us deal with unbelievable fear like this. Everything mentally shuts down for a while.
The next thing I remember, we had landed on a beach. And they told us we were at a Chinese prison camp, and that we were going to rescue a general who had been taken prisoner. We went into the prison camp. Big mistake. They used smoke grenades so we couldn’t see where we were going. We couldn’t see our own buddies in front of us. We opened fire and killed our own men.
When we realized what had happened, a group consciousness took over that was beyond normal human anger. It was rage. Rage is a dangerous place to be because you’re operating on an energy that is uncontrollable. All of the teachings you have received to be a good person, to not hurt others, not to kill people – you go right past them.
A lot of people took their machetes out. We were doing things that were beyond human understanding; things I never thought we could have been capable of. Arms and legs were thrown into a huge pile. Someone put gas on it and lit the pile. That haunted me for forty years. It was the beginning of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is like a wall between your thinking and your emotions.
Afterwards, we went back to our pup tents and they issued us some beer to calm us down, because our adrenaline couldn’t have been any higher. We were laughing about what we did and drinking beer. We were wiping our bayonets that had blood on them, cleaning our weapons. That’s really strange, to laugh at something so horrible. That’s PTSD.
Now, I’m going to say that PTSD has its purpose. I think it prevents you from going insane, because if the emotions about what you did flooded into your awareness, they could take you out.
The next thing that happened is that we were taken to a guinea pig outpost. If there was an attack, we would be wiped out first. We were told not to stand up because there were snipers that could attack us anytime.
Every night, we went out to capture prisoners. We would get to our destination and lie in a kind of horseshoe formation. We had to lie back to back so we could see what was going on. We were sweaty, and we were in a place with horrible mosquitos. We couldn’t slap ourselves to kill a mosquito. We had to slowly kill the mosquitos in total silence. The enemy knew we were out there, and sometimes started dropping mortars on us. Most of the time they missed us.
One time, something delayed us, and we didn’t get back to the bunkers before daylight. The sun came up and they started shooting at us. As soon as people got hit, our buddies who were in the trenches jumped up and ran after our buddies who were hit. Some of them got hit themselves, but they managed to drag their buddies back to safety. When you train for combat, that’s part of it – always have your buddies’ backs.
When they brought some of these guys back to the trenches, a medic was trying to save one guy, who got hit pretty badly. It had rained that night and it was muddy. And his blood was seeping into the mud. It was like watching divine madness – the madness of watching our buddy dying and the madness of us trying to kill the enemy. The madness of trying to save his life there in the mud, blood, and shit. No one can tell me that the Divine manifests itself just as a sunset or a rainbow, on top of a mountain or inside a church.
And it went to something I heard later: a veteran is someone who writes a blank check to the United States of America, including his or her life.
Hilary: The United States government has treated Lakota people horrifically. It’s still going on. How do you reconcile what this country did to Indigenous peoples of the continent? How are you not angry?
Basil: I’ve been asked before, “Why in the hell were you fighting for this country after what they did to you?” And I know they did that to me, but everything that my people taught me about forgiveness, bravery, and a commitment to serve took over.
When I was 17, a recruitment officer came around the boarding school. It was a metaphysical breakthrough in disguise. I needed to get away from the way I was being treated at school, with my language being taken away and the way I was being told to change my relationship with the Divine.
Hilary: That’s powerful. What I’m hearing is that your experience at boarding school was so painful that you enlisted in a war to free yourself.
Basil: There’s a psychologist named Erik Erikson who coined a metaphor – he said that sending Native American children to boarding schools put rickets in the childrens’ souls. It was like taking calcium away from the bone structure. When you do that, people begin to collapse; they become crippled human beings at the mercy of their captors. After a while, you identify with your captors; you believe you are what they are telling you. I didn’t want Stockholm Syndrome to define me. It felt good finding my way out of that prison.
There was a rite of passage my uncle took me to when I was five years old. It helped awaken some archetypes: the healer, the sacred clown, and the warrior. The call to protect is what drove me to go to war. I wasn’t glorifying or honoring the war. I was honoring the warrior principle I was taught as a child, about the poles of the thípi being the Masculine, which is protection.
If you see an old person getting beat up, or a young person being abused, or someone being taken advantage of you say, “I’m not going to just walk by and let this thing happen.” No, you respond. The best of you reaches out to make a difference when someone is doing something that is not congruent with who you are.
Hilary: You embraced your ancestral archetypes and reclaimed your own soul from the jaws of a machine that was trying to erase you.
Basil: That’s right. And as the war continued, I saw many of my buddies get killed. What I got out of that was never to get close to anybody. I was afraid to love and be loved. How could anybody love me if they knew that I was a killing machine?
The medicine I used to make myself feel better was alcohol, a trickster. It made me feel good for a little while. But it didn’t last. I almost committed suicide. I went into treatment for PTSD. Eventually, I got sober and began doing healing work with veterans myself.
Hilary: Basil, I’m grateful for your healing, this story, and your life. You have an American flag hanging on your wall. Do you still consider yourself a patriot?
Basil: Being a patriot means love for country. And I want to define that. The Earth doesn’t belong to us; we belong to the Earth. My relationship with patriotism centers on my love for the Divine Creation of the Feminine and Masculine. I’m still a patriot in the sense of defending my people. To me, patriotism is about transforming from a killing machine into a warrior who protects the elderly, the disabled, the oppressed, the women, and the future generations.
I hope I wasn’t disrespectful with some of the language I used to describe what I saw and experienced. A lot of the combat veterans are still suffering from PTSD, and on many occasions they will only tell another combat veteran. I hope something in what I shared will help a veteran or a veteran’s family to honor and be proud of those who served their country, and what they went through.
Hilary: Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.